Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday’s Obituary: Coroner’s Inquest on the Body of William H. Bell, 1887

Coroner’s Inquest on the Body of William H. Bell, 1887

By Jean M. Hoffman, CGSM

Ohio native, William H. Bell, died suddenly outside a Salt Lake City saloon. Details emerge from a coroner’s inquest and a related newspaper article. Conflicting reports of his marital status leave the truth uncertain.


 William H. Bell, born about 1820, was the youngest of twelve children of Samuel and Mary (neé Lyons) Bell of Newport Township, Washington County, Ohio.1 At forty-two, a farmhand, married, and father of six, he was not an obvious candidate to enlist in the Union Army.2 But enlist he did on 22 August 1862 in Company F, 116th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His time in the army was eventful ending with his discharge on 8 August 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, after a transfer to the 62nd OVI. Sometime after the war he became a stonemason though he claimed to be unable to farm by that time.3
He may have followed work opportunities as in 1880 he was recorded living in Fairmont Village, Fillmore County, Nebraska.4 The county's population in 1870 was only 238, but in ten years grew to over 10,000.5 Such rapid settlement undoubtedly supported much construction. This is where marital status begins to grow mysterious as his household includes a woman named Adelia recorded as his wife. She was fifty and born in Illinois. Meanwhile his wife Emeline (neé Phillips) Bell had moved with their children across the Ohio River to Pleasants County, West Virginia.6

Death in Salt Lake City

William applied for a pension based on his Civil War service on 23 March 1886. Paperwork was still in progress when he died. The coroner of Salt Lake County, Utah Territory, reported to the pension commission on the inquest into William’s death held 14 June 1887.7

William H. Bell was described in 1862 as 5 feet 11 inches tall with a fair complexion, gray eyes, and light hair.8 At the inquest he was reported to be “a large powerfully built man.” A newspaper article stated he was a stone-cutter, aged 67, and “was roughly clad in laborer’s garb...was above average height, and had a short gray-white beard.”9
Copy of Coroner's Inquest Verdict
Monday, 13 June 1887, Bell and his co-workers spent much of the day at Wagener’s Saloon enjoying beer, song, and fellowship. He was employed by Frank Conklin and had been working on the Karrick Building.10 About 8:00 p.m. he began to eat leftovers from his dinner pail. Suddenly he was choking. Reportedly he spoke to his friends but kept choking. They took him outside the saloon and tried to assist him, but to no avail. Dr. Ewing pronounced him dead at the scene, concluding that the cause was apoplexy. In those days apoplexy was a catchall term for otherwise unexplained sudden death.11 A person with knowledge of the modern Heimlich maneuver might have been his salvation but that is only speculation.
Sexton Taylor's mortuary hearse came for the body. The coroner was not at home, requiring the inquest be put off to the following day. The inquest jurors returned a verdict that William H. Bell died from the effects of apoplexy. He was buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery.12
Word of his death slowly made its way to his family in West Virginia. Over a year later, on 18 September 1888, Emeline applied for a widow's pension based on the service of her late husband, William H. Bell. Her application contains her marriage record; she acknowledged no separation, divorce, or other marriage.13 There can be no question that Ohio and Utah records refer to just one man.
Emeline’s pension application gives no hint that William H. Bell was ever husband to another woman. Adelia was called his wife in 1880 in Nebraska and the hearsay reference in the Salt Lake City newspaper called him “a widower with grown children back in Kansas.” The only solid documentation is of his marriage to Emeline, but he was not present in her household after about 1875. It makes one wonder about his final years on the road in the construction business.

Further Reading

I was reminded of these records recently when I read an interesting article by J. Homer Thiel, “‘Well, They Didn't Live Happily Together,’ Researching Humphrey and Lola O'Sullivan Using Coroner’s Inquest Files,” American Ancestors 14 (Summer 2013): 31-34. The case and records are in Arizona. A sidebar gives suggestions on the use and finding of old coroner’s files.

1.   H. Z. Williams Bro. Pub., 1788-1881, History of Washington County, Ohio, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches (1881; reprint Knightstown, Ind: Bookmark, 1976), 568. William was a brother of my 2nd great-grandfather, Joseph Bell.
2.   1860 U.S. Census, Washington County, Ohio, population schedule, William H. Bell household, Ludlow Township, post office Flintsmill, page 469, dwelling/family 93; NARA M653, roll 1049.
3.   Declaration for Original Invalid Pension, 1886, William H. Bell (Pvt., Co. F, 116th Ohio Inf. and Co. A, 62nd Ohio, Civil War), pension no. S.C. 432,566, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications…, 1861–1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veteran Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.. Also 1870 U.S. census, population schedule, Washington County, Ohio, William Bell household, Newport Township, post office Newport, page 392, dwelling 297, family 301; NARA M593, roll 1279.
4.   1880 U.S. census, Fillmore County, Nebraska, William H. Bell household, Fairmont Village, ED 323, page 455D, dwelling 128, family 132; NARA T9, roll 748.
5.   Wikipedia contributors, "Fillmore County, Nebraska," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,,_Nebraska (accessed 17 October 2013); citing "U.S. Decennial Census"
6.   1880 U.S. census, Pleasants County, West Virginia, Emiline Bell household, Jefferson District, ED 174, page 100A, dwelling 74, family 79; NARA T9, roll 1411.
7.   Summation of Coroner's Inquest on the Body of William H. Bell, 1887, Emeline Bell, widow’s pension application no. 380,677, certificate no. 255,011, service of William H. Bell (Pvt., Co. F, 116th Ohio Inf. and Co. A, 62nd Ohio, Civil War), Case Files of Approved Pension Applications.
8.   Compiled service record, William H. Bell, Pvt., Co. F, 116 Ohio Inf.; Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations, Civil War; Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
9.   Dropped Dead of Apoplexy (Wm. H. Bell), The Daily Tribune, Salt Lake City, Utah, 14 June 1887, p. 4, col. 4; digital image ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
11. Wikipedia contributors, "Apoplexy," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed 17 October 2013).
12. “Utah Cemetery Inventory,” William H. Bell entry, Salt Lake City Cemetery, sexton records; database, ( : accessed 10 November 2012).
13. Widow's Claim for Pension and Transcript From Record of Marriages, Washington County, Ohio, 1888, Emeline Bell, widow’s pension no. 255,011, Civil War, RG 15, NA-Washington.